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For image, keep your eye on Rudy

Listening to Republican insiders, one might conclude that none of their candidates can win the GOP nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), they say, is out because his attacks angered the religious right, while ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani cannot win because he articulates positions they find abhorrent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost the trust of the far right by flip-flopping on all their key issues, from abortion to gay marriage.

Listening to Republican insiders, one might conclude that none of their candidates can win the GOP nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), they say, is out because his attacks angered the religious right, while ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani cannot win because he articulates positions they find abhorrent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost the trust of the far right by flip-flopping on all their key issues, from abortion to gay marriage.

While the logic is clearly flawed — someone will win the nomination — the arguments reveal why the candidates are all following Richard Nixon’s classic advice to tack right.

The argument against the GOP frontrunners also sets up an interesting test: Can a candidate’s personal image overcome discordant issue positions? Because character narratives are often more compelling than issues, I would watch Rudy Giuliani.

Focusing on Giuliani’s character is more than a little ironic. On Sept. 10, 2001, Rudy Giuliani was a rather unpopular mayor who had announced on television to his wife that they were getting a divorce and then, leaving his children behind in Gracie Mansion, decamped to the home of friends so he could take up residence with his girlfriend.

His multiple failings were not lost on New Yorkers. Just days before the attacks, about equal numbers of his constituents expressed favorable and unfavorable opinions of their mayor. New Yorkers were evenly divided on Giuliani’s honesty and, by better than a 40-point margin, said he was not likeable.

In retrospect, Sept. 11 changed less about America than most expected, but it did alter Rudy Giuliani’s image, which was forged in the crucible of crisis. The nation’s eyes fixed on him, while the intense emotionality opened people to forming new and lasting impressions. Giuliani assumed mythic proportions — a tough, in-charge executive, comforting the bereaved, offering direction to the bewildered and hope to the despondent — standing as a human tower of strength where those of concrete and steel had fallen.

For reasons less obvious, George Bush also created a mythology for himself in those difficult days, but he squandered it in the floodwaters of Katrina and the deserts of Iraq. Giuliani faced no public tests after January 2002 and was therefore unable to fail them. Like vaudevillians of yore, he left his audience crying for more.

That image, created in a few instants and on little factual basis, has propelled Giuliani to the head of the GOP class of 2008. For months, pundits ignored his poll leads, uncertain about his intentions and convinced his issue positions would render him “unacceptable” to the base. Yet, in nine of the 10 national primary polls done this year, Giuliani leads the pack, including McCain.

Such national polls are not worth much at this stage, but they do buttress a host of other data suggesting the mayor has stronger appeal to GOP primary voters than does the senator. For now, Giuliani leads in twice as many states as McCain. Iowa and New Hampshire are quite close by most accounts, but Giuliani would seem to lead in the former and McCain in the latter. Giuliani even leads in bastions of Republican conservatism like Alabama and North Carolina.

To start predicting winners at this point is foolish, but it is equally foolish to ignore the consistent poll leader on the untested assumption that he cannot win. All three of the Republican frontrunners bring major liabilities to the race — and all have serious problems with the far right. Nevertheless, for good reasons or bad, Rudy Giuliani has a positive character narrative clearly etched in voters’ minds, one that may just trump his views on abortion or gay rights — even for his fellow Republicans.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.